This is PART TWO of a six part post reproduced with kind permission of Maureen McHugh, Writer & Partner at No Mimes Media.
Human beings construct narrative. It’s what we do. We impose meaning and cause and effect on events. We say, this happened and then because of it, that happened. We do it even when it’s not true—which is how places like Vegas stay in business. If you’re flipping a coin, and it comes up heads nine times in a row, what are the odds on the tenth toss? 50-50. Statistics are not narrative.
How we construct those narratives is strongly affected by culture. The stories that are told to us teach us to expect things to happen in certain ways. Some of those conventions are probably more universal than others. I suspect that teaching fables, like Aesop, are common across cultures. Stories of spirits—he didn’t realize it was a ghost until/ he woke up and the beautiful mansion was really a ruin/ the parents told him their daughter had died a year ago/ are also probably fairly widespread. Maybe the story of virtue rewarded, which is a kind of teaching story (do the right thing) is also fairly universal. I’m speculating here. Cowboys and cops are a kind of subset of the convention of the hero. But it is neither a truth nor a universal convention that a car, flying off a cliff, explodes spontaneously and cataclysmically in midair. That convention is one of American TV and movies.
According to Nielsen, the average American watches over four hours of television a day. Insert the usual caveats about averages and Nielsen ratings here, because I’m not sure how people manage this, given that so many of us have jobs and school. But we watch a lot of TV. Even given that some of that is news and sports, there’s still a lot of storytelling in there. Kids watch more. Again, according to Nielsen (caveat, caveat) kids spend 900 hours a year in school and watch 1500 hours of TV a year. That’s almost six hours a day. Making narrative may be a human condition, but I have to wonder, has any culture ever been subjected to so much storytelling, by so many different storytellers, in history?
It makes us very savvy about narrative conventions. Think about how many times you walk into a room and a television show you know is on. You don’t really know the exact time, but you glance at the screen and, say, Dr. House is sitting in his office, tossing the ball into the air, and he gets up and limps out. You know it’s somewhere between quarter of and five minutes of the hour (if you have watched House a couple of times, and maybe even if you haven’t.) We know the conventions of shows. We know when the detective is about to get the murderer to confess. We know when the diagnosis is a blind alley. We know the moment when the sitcom star realizes that they are in a situation (which is why they are called situation comedies). We know the rhythms of the stories. The same is true of pop songs. I lived in China many many years ago, and when I listened to classical Chinese music, one of the things that struck me was that I never knew when the song was going to end. I had no internal model for the structure of the music. Chinese pop songs, on the other hand, were much more familiar to me, even though they were being sung in a language I barely spoke. They had refrains and bridges.
Television shows and movies have very strong structural conventions. Over time, watching and learning these conventions has had an interesting affect on TV and movies. Television shows today, like CSI, present three story arcs in the same time period that a show like Starsky and Hutch would present one story arc. Some of the events on TV are now abstracted rather than dramatized or explained.
What does this have to do with transmedia storytelling?
In my case, a lot. (Cont’d in Part 3)